A Glitch in Baron-Cohen’s System

Let’s go back to Baron-Cohen’s definition of systemising. In an essay entitled ‘Why So Few Women in Math and Science?’ he introduced it like this:

As systemizing is a new concept, it needs a little more definition. By a “system” I mean something that takes inputs and delivers outputs. To systemize, one uses “if–then” (correlation) rules. The brain focuses on a detail or parameter of the system and observes how this varies—that is, it treats a feature of a particular object or event as a variable. Alternatively, a person actively or systematically manipulates a given variable. One notes the effect(s) of performing an operation on one single input in terms of its effects elsewhere in the system (the output). The key data structure used in systemizing is [input–operation–output]. If I do x, a changes to b. If z occurs, p changes to q. Systemizing therefore requires an exact eye for detail.1

Forgive me for dumping this rather dense paragraph, but it’s important. Read it carefully. And ask yourself where such systemising is to be found. Where have you performed or observed someone performing this kind of systemising?

Now this is what Baron-Cohen has to say:

The relevant domains to explore for evidence of systemizing include any fields that are, in principle, rule-governed. Thus, chess and football are good examples of systems.” (12)

Chess and football happen to be predominantly masculine pursuits in this world of ours. Remember the SQ statements that were similarly gendered male. But what about knitting? I’d call that a system that takes and delivers outputs.2 Why has that never been included on the SQ?

Just a few lines before giving football as an example, Baron-Cohen told us that “Systemizing is of almost no use for predicting moment-to-moment changes in a person’s behavior, but it is our most powerful way of understanding and predicting the law-governed, inanimate universe” (12). But football isn’t law-governed and inanimate; “moment-to-moment changes in a person’s behaviour,” which he tells us cannot be predicted by systemising, are enormously significant in football. The moment-to-moment decisions of the players are unpredictable; using the same strategy (input) in football will not always generate the same result (output) because it depends a) on how effectively you execute it in a given situation, and b) on how the opposition respond. Weather, and players’ healths and moods consititute variables and create further uncertainty. If football were really all that predictable we’d always know who was going to win! Actually, the same goes for chess. Your input does not always deliver the same output because it depends on the moves made by the other player.

Knitting, on the other hand, is far more “law-governed” and “inanimate”. Back to The Essential Difference, where “Systemizing is the drive to analyze, explore, and construct a system.” Actually, the more I think about it, the more knitting looks like a perfect example. “The systemizer intuitively figures out how things work, or extracts the underlying rules that govern the behavior of a system. This is done in order to understand and predict the system, or to invent a new one.” (13) Yes. To knit, one must understand the system. And one must extract the underlying rules of knitting and of patterns in order to invent a pattern of one’s own. Spatial skills (like rotation), stereotyped as masculine, are also necessary

Making clothes (out of cloth, rather than knitting), whether by hand or with a sewing machine, requires a similar set of skills; rotation must be even more important here. So why aren’t these items on the systemising quotient? If they were, more women would score more points, while men might lose a few; suddenly, systemising wouldn’t look quite so male-dominated. 


1 In The Science on Women and Science, ed. Sommers (Washington, D.C., 2009), p.11. Hereafter page numbers will be given in the text. It’s rather important to be aware that this was a collection of essays put together to combat the idea that something ought to be done to get more women into science. (Sounds a bit like Damore’s memo, doesn’t it?) If that isn’t science with a political agenda, I don’t know what is. I’ll return to a discussion of this in another post.

2 Interestingly, in a 2009 paper submitted to Tizard Learning Disability Review, Vol 14.3, he included “learning knitting patterns” as an example of “motoric systemising” in individuals on the autistic spectrum. Perhaps he included it in response to the criticisms of his gender-biased quotient, or because in this case the paper was about “implications for education” and educators/parents might not have been happy with examples that were all gendered male. But it’s significant that he includes it as “motoric systemising” and equivalent to “learning…a tennis technique” rather than classing it, for instance, under “numerical systemising.” And, even more significantly, knitting was never included on the SQ – not even the revised version reissued in the wake of criticisms.

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